‘Anti-racism experts’ declare if you use words such as ‘savage,’ ‘spooky,’ ‘blackmail,’ or ‘ghetto,’ you haven’t quite made the woke squad

Just in case you’ve been hard at work on your “Things I Need to Change in My Life to Get Woke” list, here’s a little addition featuring words that “experts” in “anti-racism and language” say you should consider never uttering again.

What are the details?

The Ottawa branch of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said it listed words and phrases submitted by readers and some CBC journalists who are black, indigenous, and people of color — and then talked to “anti-racism and language experts” who said some of the entries “can be hurtful to various groups of people.”

Ai Taniguchi — a linguist and an associate language studies professor with University of Toronto Mississauga — told CBC that saying “‘I didn’t know it was racist’ does not eliminate the pain of the hearer. As language users, we have the social responsibility to monitor the impact our utterances have on others, especially when it involves a marginalized group.”



So, what’s on the un-woke word and phrase list?

Blackmail, blacklist, black sheep

Joseph Smith — an anti-racism trainer and educator — told the network that “blackmail,” “blacklist,” and “black sheep” possess meanings related to “evil, distrust, lack of intelligence, ignorance, a lack beauty — the absence of white.”

He added to the CBC that even prior to the transatlantic slave trade the word “black” became “associated with a particular group of people, and that group of people received all that negative connotation. That’s why we try to move away from these kinds of terms.”



The experts told the network said that words like “whitelist” and “blacklist” can be replaced by “block-list” or “deny-list.”

Ghetto, inner city

Smith added to the CBC that terms like “ghetto” and “inner city” come from the idea that they’re “where less refined people lived — the people who weren’t up to date culturally, development-wise.” Such places also connoted danger while the suburbs were seen as safer, the network said.


The term “spook” — besides its use in ghost stories and during Halloween — has a history as an anti-black slur beginning with black soldiers being called “spooks” during World War II, the CBC said.


The term “savage” has become popular on social media as it’s often used to describe someone who is “fierce, or a situation that is intense — and carries a positive or semi-positive connotation,” the network said.

But Smith told the CBC that colonizers used “savage” as a way of differentiating themselves — “the epitome of refinement, intelligence, spirituality” — from indigenous, black, and other people of color.

Anything else?

The network was far from done with its un-woke list. The others entries are:

  • “Sold down the river” — experts told the CBC the phrase is connected to the transatlantic slave trade.
  • “Grandfathered in” — it’s related to a 19th century policy that indirectly stopped black Americans from voting, the network noted.
  • “Spirit animal,” “powwow,” “tribe” — insulting to indigenous people, the CBC said.
  • “Lowest on the totem pole” — cultural appropriation of the totem pole and “contextually wrong” since being carved low on the totem pole might be a great honor, another “expert” told the network.
  • “Gypped,” “gypsy” — as “gypped” is slang for being cheated, and it’s connected to the Roma, “who historically travelled from place to place across Europe,” Smith noted to the CBC that such terms perpetuate stereotypes: “You’re othering somebody,” he added to the network.
  • “First-world problem” — the CBC said the term is still used to “convey that something is an issue only to those who live in a country with privilege and wealth” and can be classist.
  • “Brainstorm,” “blindsided,” “blind-spot” — “brainstorm” can be offensive to those with brain injuries while “blindsided” and “blind-spot” can be offensive to those whose sight is limited, the network said.
  • “Dumb,” “lame” — “dumb” was once used to describe someone who couldn’t speak; “lame” was used to describe someone with limited abilities with their legs, the CBC said, adding that “both are highly offensive when describing people in the disability community, but also when used casually,” another “expert” told the network.
  • “Tone deaf” — the CBC said it “may not be a kind term to those who have hearing impairments,” and an “expert” added to the network that a better phrase is “musically disinclined.”
  • “Crippled” — an expert called the term “ableist” and said its “pejorative connotation” sends the message that “you’re not as good as me, you’ll never be as good as me,” the CBC added.

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